Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Fire at Dr. Mackall's Near Langley, October 1863: More Insights on Civilians and the Contraband Camps

When compared to other topics in local Civil War history such John Mosby's exploits or First Manassas, few writings have focused on the story behind the contraband camps that were established on abandoned secessionist lands in Northern Virginia. These farms represented a social experiment in transitioning freed slaves to self-sufficiency while reducing disease and overcrowding that was prevalent in other contraband settlements. The fact that the Union Army placed the camps on the property of Confederate sympathizers and slaveholders is replete with irony. As I wrote a few months ago, my research on the contraband camps is an on-going effort, and I plan to share my findings here on the blog.

Detachments from Union cavalry and infantry regiments were garrisoned at or near the farms to protect them against Confederate raids, although not always successfully. While looking for additional information on military life at the camps, I came across the following item from the October 21, 1863 edition of the Alexandria Gazette:
The house occupied by the officers in charge of the the contraband farms in Virginia, between Langley and Lewinsvillle, accidentally took fire and was burned to the ground on Sunday afternoon. The house was the property of Dr. Mackall, formerly of Cecil county, Md. The property was at one time owned by the superintendent of public schools in the state of New York.
This article refers to the home of Dr. Richard C. Mackall, indicated on  Map-1 below. Mackall had about 129 acres on the road from Langley to Lewinsville. The property sat squarely between the two separate tracts that constituted Camp Wadsworth. (See Map-2 below and my previous post on the location of the camp.) Starting at some point in the summer of 1863, Mackall's house became the residence and headquarters for the officers assigned to Camp Wadsworth. Camp Beckwith was farther down road past Lewinsville, and the Official Records indicates that the officers at that location were quartered at a house that sat on the farm there. (OR, 1:29:1, 202; previous post here.)

Map-1, detail from an 1862 Union Army map of Northeastern Virginia (courtesy of Library of Congress). Mackall's property, including the local landmark "Mackall's Hill," is visible between Langley (r) and Lewinsville (l). Artillery was positioned on or near Mackall's property during minor skirmishes at Lewinsville in September 1861.

Federal authorities targeted abandoned secessionist properties when selecting sites for the contraband farms. The decision to use of Dr. Mackall's house makes perfect sense, considering that Mackall had the reputation as a staunch supporter of the Confederate cause. Moreover, his own brother, Gen. William W. Mackall, was serving as Gen. Braxton Bragg's chief of staff.

Map showing Dr. Richard C. Mackall's property (red) superimposed on a present-day map of McLean, Virginia. (View Mackall Property and Camp Wadsworth in a larger map.) Camp Wadsworth was located on land belonging to Lewis D. Means (yellow) and James W. Cooke (blue). The Langley Shopping Center sits on or near the former site of Mackall's Hill.

Dr. Mackall was born on January 14, 1822 at Wilna in Cecil County, Maryland. At age eighteen, he entered the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery. After graduation in 1841, Mackall moved to St. Louis, Missouri and practiced dentistry, but three years later returned to the East Coast and earned a medical degree from the University of Maryland. Mackall first practiced medicine in Prince William County, Virginia. When his first wife died, he relocated once again, this time to Savannah, Georgia, where he practiced medicine and remarried. Following three years in Savannah, Mackall purchased his farm in Fairfax County near Langley.

An old picture of Wilna, boyhood home of Richard C. and William W. Mackall near Elkton in Cecil County, Maryland (courtesy of Historical Marker Database). A marker near this site site discusses William Mackall's career during the Civil War.
As the sectional crisis intensified, Mackall became active on behalf of the secessionist cause. At a meeting of concerned citizens in Fairfax Court House at the end of April 1861, he was appointed to a committee that drafted a series of resolutions regarding the defense and preparedness of the Commonwealth in the wake of the Virginia Convention's recent vote in favor of secession. The attendees at the meeting unanimously adopted the resolutions. On May 23, Mackall cast his ballot for the Virginia Ordinance of Secession in the Lewinsville precinct. He was in the minority among his neighbors to favor a break with the Union.

When the Federal Army occupied the area around Langley and Lewinsville in October 1861, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock located his brigade headquarters at Mackall's residence. Dr. Mackall was made a political prisoner, but Hancock allegedly intervened and secured Mackall's release. The doctor returned to Wilna in Cecil County for the remainder of the war.

Mackall was an active member of the community during the post-war years. He served as president of the Cecil County School Commissioners and was elected to the Maryland Legislature as a Democrat in 1888. Mackall was also the one-time owner and editor of the Cecil Democrat. He died on February 16, 1902 after a brief illness caused by paralysis.

The article in the Gazette, however brief, fills additional gaps in our knowledge about the contraband camps and illustrates the dramatic impact that war had on civilians in Northern Virginia. Mackall's home fell into Union hands, and the officers working there oversaw and protected the nearby contraband camp. Could Mackall have ever imagined that his own property would become part of the Union effort to promote the economic and social advancement of freed slaves? A few months later, a violent fire literally wiped Mackall's antebellum homestead off the map. The symbolism was unmistakable: War had brought revolutionary change to Langley, and life would never again be the same.


Alexandria Gazette, May 3, 1861; Alexandria Gazette, Oct. 21, 1863; Brian A. Conley, Fractured Land: Fairfax County's Role in the Vote for Secession, May 23, 1861 (2001); "Dr. Richard C. Mackall," Obituary, in The Dental Cosmos: A Monthly Record of Dental Science (May 1902); Beth Mitchell, Fairfax County in 1860: Property Owners (original map book available at Virginia Room, City of Fairfax Regional Library) ("1860 Map"); N.Y. Times, Oct. 11, 1861.

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